Disaster at the Tour: Team 7-Eleven Holds Jersey for Just 3 Hours

Just hours after becoming the first North American to win the race lead at the Tour de France, Alex Stieda has lost the yellow jersey after a disastrous team time trial performance by the 7-Eleven Team.

Velo-news reports that the team punctured four times in the race, and team member Eric Heiden crashed. Stieda plunged from first to 116th overall.

Today featured a Tour rarity—two stages in one day. After a solid time trial in the Prologue and then accumulating time bonuses on his way to placing 5th on today’s first stage, Stieda fared badly during today’s second stage, a 56 km team time trial from Meudon to Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines.

Velo-news editor Geoff Drake explains.

After the days’ first stage, the 7-Elevens had given little thought to the fact that, in less than three hours, the squad would be toeing the line for the team time trial.

Stieda needed rest. But first, there was the traditional pomp and circumstance afforded to the leader of the Tour. Clearly, his overall time had earned him the yellow leader’s jersey. What he did not know was that, by virtue of his bonus points throughout the stage, he was also the owner of the red jersey (for “Catch Sprints”), the white jersey (best newcomer), the polka-dot jersey (best climber), and the combination jersey (for standings in all categories). For each, he ascended the podium and in turn donned the ceremonial jersey, was handed flowers, and was kissed by trophy girls. He was so tired by the yellow jersey presentation that a photographer had to remind him to smile.

“I was elated, but I was so exhausted,” he said.

After descending the podium, Stieda and the 7-Eleven Team joined the rest of the peloton at a local school, where they lay down on cots in an austere gymnasium. For Stieda, it was a fitful sleep, his mind racing with thoughts of the afternoon’s stage. “I had put out so much,” he said. “I didn’t realize how depleted I was.”

Worse yet, just a handful of the 7-Eleven riders had any race experience at team time trials. In fact, none of them had done a 10-man version, where the need for precision—and the risks of a crash—are exponentially greater. And, unlike more experienced teams, they had not pre-ridden the course. “We could have been better prepared,” said Ochowicz in a remarkable understatement.

Stieda was even more succinct. “We had no idea what we were doing.”

At 18 kilometers, Phinney, following a lead motorcycle, led the hard-charging group into a downhill corner. Kiefel said Phinney was “going way too fast. He was amped and excited.” The first few riders made it through a tight turn around a traffic island safely, but others, farther back, weren’t so lucky. Heiden was first to pile into the median. In an instant, riders and bikes were scattered like a yard sale.

From there, things went from bad to worse. Doug Shapiro was oblivious to the carnage behind. “He kept sprinting up the hill, thinking the rest of the team was on his wheel,” said Kiefel. While team mechanic Richie Gilstrap was attending to broken bikes, the leading riders had to make a decision: Should they keep going, or wait for the rest of the team to catch up?

“It was complete disarray,” said Phinney. “We’re just arguing among ourselves. That was going to be indicative of the day—it went from bad to worse as the race went on. Tempers started to flare.”

Once back in formation, they found themselves in an open area with a strong crosswind, where it was critical to draft and maintain a close following distance. At one point, the newest member of the team, Alexi Grewal, went to the front. What happened next is subject to dispute—according to different accounts from members of the team, he was either pedaling roughly, failed to position himself for optimum draft, or both. Whatever the case, Grewal and Shapiro were suddenly engaged in a shouting match at 30 mph. In the next instant, “Shapiro takes a bottle and wings it at Alexi’s head,” said Kiefel.

No sooner had the team assembled itself for the second time, than another, more serious problem was revealed—Stieda, in all the excitement, had forgotten to eat lunch. Spent from his effort that morning, the awards marathon, and the scrutiny of the world’s cycling press, he began to unravel. “Alex was gassed,” said Ochowicz.

The usual tactic in these circumstances is for the exhausted rider to drift to the back and enjoy a draft, leaving the bulk of the work to his teammates. But for Stieda, even this proved impossible. “With 15 or 20 kilometers to go, my legs are starting to go,” he said. “I just can’t hold the wheel in front. I’m getting gapped more, and digging in to get over the hills.”Team 7-Eleven Alex Steida bonks during the Tour de France team time trial

Seeing the impending embarrassment of the yellow jersey being dropped, sport director Mike Neel instructed the group to ease up. But even after slowing, “Alex just couldn’t do it,” said Pierce. The risk was not just that Stieda would lose precious minutes, but that he might finish outside the time limit and be eliminated from the race entirely. If that weren’t bad enough, Heiden, Kiefel, and Alcalá all punctured.

While Stieda continued his trip through purgatory, the time check was getting worse for everyone. It wasn’t just Stieda’s fate that hung in the balance; if the team stayed with him, they might all be eliminated. (The rules stipulated that riders must finish within a percentage of the stage winner’s time.) Seeing the impending disaster, Neel asked Carmichael and Pierce to drop back and provide an escort for the exhausted Stieda, allowing the others to ride ahead.

In the end the three were able to nurse each other to the line. Stieda, having lost the yellow jersey, just made the time limit. The team finished in 19th, tied for second to last. Stieda had been in the yellow jersey for a little more than three hours.

Phinney said, “We couldn’t have done any worse if we’d tried. On the first day of the Tour, we go from having yellow, and everyone talking about us, to going to last place, with everyone laughing at us.”

It was, said Stieda, “the worst thing we’d ever done.” Even worse, said Kiefel, “it was all on French TV.”

Here is the CBS footage from today’s stage, including music from commentator and celebrated composer John Tesh.

Coverage of today’s second stage was adapted from Team 7-Eleven by Geoff Drake with Jim Ochowicz.

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